domestic work

My Mother Didn’t Work. And That’s Okay

Driven by passionate professional goals, the writer—and now cheese maker—was embarrassed by her mom’s lack of career. Until she realized why she shouldn’t be.

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I don’t really look like my mother, to my eternal chagrin. Despite my desire to have her deep brown eyes and full lips and tiny cute potato nose and Mediterranean coloring, I am, in the looks department, my father’s child. Still, you can tell my mother and I are related by our facial expressions, our similarly slangy, Yiddish-speckled patois and inflection, and the odd way our feet fan out with a penguin’s gait when we walk down the stairs. And from her I’ve inherited all of my interests and so-called talents. Her verbosity has made me into a writer. I share her fierce love of animals. Her sophisticated palate and culinary acumen set me on a lifelong path as a food lover and maker. In so many significant ways, I am her spitting image.

Perhaps due to lack of imagination, I’ve chosen to weld these disparate interests into professions, first as a journalist, then as a wine buyer and, most recently, as a cheese maker (or, more accurately, a cheese maker’s assistant) and farm hand. My mother took these similar passions only so far, embarking on a short-term gig as a freelance art and food critic for the local paper, volunteering for a number of animal rescues, becoming a reputable hostess and home cook who throws riotously inventive dinner parties, organizing fund-raisers with imagination and generally engaging in the sorts of activities that, on paper, make her seem like a sort of Babe Paley–ish socialite. Which, for those who do know her, is hysterical to even contemplate, because she’s humble and self-deprecating and quirky and artistic and something of a homebody introvert who nonetheless forces herself to go out in the world and contribute to it in meaningful ways.

With support and encouragement, she pushed me forward on the path that she herself never ventured more than a few yards down, waving to me ever more distantly from the trailhead as I inched further and further along.

It’s hard to know what algorithm of nature and nurture instills in us our work ethic. It’s unpredictable, but still we can find dozens of retroactive indicators, picking apart the factors that gave rise to this person’s unflagging devotion to work (she grew up poor or she had a task-master father, she went to military school) versus that one’s lack of motivation, dearth of direction or outright laziness. As someone with a love-hate relationship to work, I often think about the example that my mother set for me and how that’s affected my own attitudes. While I don’t think of my parents as being particularly traditional, when it came to the division of labor in our household, ours was admittedly rather conventional in a 1950s Leave It To Beaver kind of way. My dad went dutifully off to work every day and my mother stayed home to tend the proverbial hearth.

Before this arrangement came to be, and I was very small, there was a short period when she was a single mom, and we went from living with my grandmother to living in government-subsidized housing. My memory of that time is cloudy, but I don’t recall a struggle or wanting for anything. There was always food on the table, I had nice clothes, and I even went to a private school for pre-K.

And as I got older, there was always the assumption that I would have to work to support myself. It was not, as it had been for my mother’s generation, some fulfillment of feminist obligation. It simply … was. But like my generational peers, there was a sense that work was not merely a means to an end but an extension or defining part of one’s character and identity, something that was intellectually stimulating, creatively fulfilling, etc. I recognize now that that expectation carries with it an inherent privilege, this luxury of finding a professional path that is soul-satisfying or fun or at the very least a proper exploitation of one’s gifts and abilities.

By and large, this notion of work as an expression of my deeper self, my interests and talents, has guided me through life, and through a series of not always lucrative but often semi-glamorous jobs that have followed the trajectory of my changing whims. My most recent endeavor as an aspiring farmstead cheese maker was, up until two months ago, merely a long-held and abstract pipe dream, for both my mother and myself, an idyllic fantasy touchstone. No one was more surprised than I was when I finally took the leap and found myself installed at the elbow of one of my cheese-making heroes. It has been grueling work, even at my lowly apprenticeship-ish level. My singular devotion to the work in this instance is unprecedented, partly because for the first time ever it was something that I explicitly pursued and made a sacrifice fpr. But much of my still-evolving work ethic has been shaped by my exposure to the remarkable lady at the helm of this tiny cheese-making operation. She’s an exception to the never-meet-your-heroes rule—cooler and more fascinating and impressive than I ever suspected when I was marveling at her from afar, heaping all of my pastoral fantasies onto the then untested idea of working for her. The reality of being employed by her has only deepened my respect for and devotion to her. She is, I realize now, my very first, real role model.

As I marvel at this woman’s fortitude and brilliance and independence and vision, I simultaneously think to myself: Why not my mom? She had many of the same impulses and inclinations as my boss, including some of the same self-professed limitations (ADD and dyslexia), which in the case of cheese making sort of wind up working in one’s favor, what with all of the many moving parts. Despite myself, I couldn’t help comparing the two women who were born and raised in the same period and developed such similar interests, wondering what conditions and obstacles and nuances of identity and personality and history resulted in such different outcomes. Seeing the life my boss has made for herself in spite of all of the setbacks she faced, I wonder what factors prevented my mom from making this dream—any of her dreams, really—into a career. Was it an active choice or a deeply held belief that she wasn’t up to the task? Or something else entirely?

Choice is a word that comes up frequently in discussions of women, work, feminism. My generation is the product of those women who fought to have the choices that I and my contemporaries now take, to some degree, for granted. I can’t know for sure what Rubik’s cube of rationales above and beyond a lack of financial imperative my mother had for not trying to make all of her interests and talents and passions into a profession. But that choice is one that, I’m ashamed to say, sometimes makes me a little self-conscious. Just a few weeks ago, my boss asked me what my mother does, and I rather sheepishly replied that she didn’t really have a job before tripping over myself to explain all of the things she busies herself with. I was hyper-wary of having my boss judge my mother, and by extension, me, lumping all those who have not worked as tirelessly as her into a pile marked “worthless coddled layabouts.” I am proud of my mother, protective of her all the more because I sense that she herself is a little embarrassed about her lack of professionalism, and because while she doubts herself, I know her to be brilliant and capable. But when I pit her against a woman like my boss, I immediately feel the need to explain and justify, lest anyone think she’s a lazy, entitled, bon-bon-eating hausfrau. Why should I give a shit?

My mother recently came to visit the farm where I work, and seemed thoroughly delighted by the life I’d made for myself here. I tried to express to her that she too, could have had—still could have—this life that she seems so taken by. And that her support and enthusiasm are in large part what got me here in the first place. We talked, in a casual way, about work and careers and her choices and she confessed to me that even after 60-plus years of practice, she too gets a little tripped up when people ask her what she does. “I tell them, ‘You’re looking at it,’” she snorted with her trademark self-effacement.

After she left, I thought long and hard about that response. And the more I examined it, the more radical it began to sound. Because while it may not have been her intention, her statement was a defiant one to make: to challenge someone to take her at face value, refusing to furnish them with the ready-made socio-economic box that stating one’s profession seems to supply. There was a time when it was considered rude to ask what someone did for a living for just such a reason, but these days we’re too lazy to get to know someone without this as a fall-back. We ascribe so much value and meaning to the work that we do, as though that alone, or even in large part, defines us and our worth. My mother’s life and story and reality are necessarily more multifaceted and complex than a simple, pat “I’m in real estate” or “I teach math” could impart. The implications of her statement, that she is who she is, without the protective mantel of a traditional professional title, was a revelation to me, and one that I found, much like my mom, humbly brilliant. Because so much of my personhood was shaped by her, I realize that my protective instincts around her and her choices were and are more about my own insecurities and fears of judgement. She’s had twice as long as I have to be okay with who she is, and I’m still at the trailhead in that regard. I have a ways to go. But I have a stellar role model.


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